Right Turn, Clyde
By Richard von Busack
Clint Eastwood’s muddled, stodgy, peculiar, and shot full of curare bio-pic J. Edgar is ultimately nothing but ambitious, and perhaps it’s the ambition that’s making big-name critics call it a masterpiece. Eastwood is reaching here, and that’s what makes it such a disappointment; worse, a far better film about the shadowland drabness of the intelligencer’s world is coming out in a few short weeks: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Eastwood challenged himself by taking on a half-century of American history, from the Palmer Raids to Nixon’s regime. But despite a few excursions (the CG mock up of Broadway in 1931, for example) most of J. Edgar takes place entirely in a few rooms.
This is a defensible stance when telling a life-long bureaucrat’s story. It’s also a chore to watch. This version of Hoover sits at a desk, a pudgy minotaur protected by loyal secretary (Naomi Watts), and a proud but suffocating mother (Judi Dench). The mom is one of those mothers we used to have in the movies who made her son a homosexual. The real poison in the conception is that she turns on him when he shows signs of girlishness: she suggests suicide is better for a son who might grow up as a “daffodil.”
The lead performance gives us a sense of paranoia but not of cunning. Leonardo Di Caprio plays Hoover, and it’s a catastrophically recessive part: he’s a blur on Eastwood’s ever-underlit screen. At first, he’s a snazzily dressed, fussy young man, less interesting even than Costner in The Untouchables. In the leap of a scene, Hoover is a swollen elder in thick make up that makes him look like Jack Kirby’s The Thing.
Hoover emerges for lunches, dinners and jaunts to the racetrack with his handsome longtime companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played both the Winklevoss Twins in The Social Network).
Circumstantial evidence in place, scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) underscores everyone’s favorite tale of Hoover: the urban legend of his gayness and transvestitism.
Mourn if you will the hypocrisy of Hoover, who may have hid his own sexuality even as he snooped into the sex lives of others. Would this mighty blackmailer—in effect the head of the American secret police—have been a better man if he just could have declared his love to the world?
Understandably, Eastwood cites the good work done by Hoover. The focus here is on Hoover’s involvement on the Lindbergh case. It’s treated as an open and shut criminal matter, solved by innovative fingerprinting and forensic analysis…rather than a case concluded with circumstantial evidence.
It’s fair to admire Hoover as a man who served his country by dragging it into modern criminological methods. Thanks to the FBI, kidnappers have never prospered in America. Eastwood insists here on Hoover’s youthful sanity, a sanity that contradicted later paranoia fueled, the film suggests, by prescribed amphetamine shots.
But J. Edgar goes beyond fairness into the terminal on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand historiography of the second half of Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. And here too is the aimless back and forth eddying of Flags Of Our Fathers.
J. Edgar Hoover unstuck in time is, like J. Edgar Hoover as a prissy librarian gone megalomaniac, a defensible approach to the man’s life. One of the best scenes has Hoover snapping out of a drug fugue in time to notice that Richard M. Nixon is having his inaugural parade; we recall he’d seen FDR’s parade through the same window. Ultimately, Hoover is a rider on a memory carousel with no axis. This master plotter seems like a passive reactor. And J. Edgar doesn’t nearly give Hoover credit for the amount of lives he destroyed.
At their worst, Eastwood’s films are a series of incidents with little connection, anecdotes that don’t lead to any truth. His many fans consider this lack of emphasis essential to Eastwood’s directing: they claim it’s a mark of his pragmatic coolness. But J. Edgar has no highs or lows, even when famous people turn up: a movie star or two, or a squandered Jessica Hecht playing Emma Goldman.
Maybe the only moment when J. Edgar twitches out of its coma is at the end: Richard Nixon pronounces both a public and private obituary for Hoover. The private, obscene obit Nixon spits out is a relief from the rest of the movie. Say what you will about Nixon, but at least he had an opinion on J. Edgar Hoover.